Twenty-seven years after construction began on Interstate 485, the final segment of Charlotte’s outerbelt opened for regular traffic at 2:53 p.m. Friday.
Earlier in the afternoon, Gov. Pat McCrory drove a Toyota Camry through a ribbon to symbolically open the road.
“We’re no longer the biggest city in America without an outer beltway,” McCrory said.
The 5.7-mile segment cost $231.7 million and is expected to ease congestion and improve emergency response times north of Charlotte. It connects N.C. 115 and Interstate 85 to complete a 67-mile circle around the city.
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I-485 is probably the last large-scale highway program in Charlotte without toll lanes. With congestion worsening and little money available for highways, officials are embracing express lanes in which motorists pay a toll and are guaranteed a minimum travel speed of 45 mph.
The new highway segment is expected to bring businesses and new construction to the area. Development has already started on a Publix at the Prosperity Church Road interchange and a Walmart at Bryton Town Center near the Interstate 77 interchange.
Construction on I-485 began 27 years ago near Pineville. The first sections had two lanes in each direction. The new segment has four lanes in each direction, and the speed limit on the entire outerbelt was raised to 70 miles per hour in late May.
The first cars on the new highway were two brand-new sports cars, with race car driver Sam Barnett behind the wheel of an Aston Martin and his colleague Mike Skeen driving a Maserati.
Regular traffic followed in their wake.
John Kohlwey of Mallard Creek had been waiting to drive the new highway since 12:15 p.m.
“We actually mountain biked it (while it was under construction) and were really excited about it,” he said. “Selfishly, I wanted to be one of the first people to ride on it.”
Kevin Williams of Charlotte and his son Justin Williams, 16, expected the new highway to already be open when they drove up after 2 p.m.
“It will help me get to my tournaments a lot faster,” said Justin, who plays baseball.
With Ned Curran, board chairman of the N.C. Department of Transportation, in his passenger seat, McCrory had to wait for the crowd to clear before he drove through the ribbon.
“I thought about hitting some of the media and some of the politicians, but I’ve got to move forward and move on,” McCrory joked.
The euphoria lasted barely two hours before the first wreck was reported – an overturned vehicle near Mallard Creek Road – and the state was alerting motorists to congestion and delays.
Hayley Fowler, Joe Marusak and Langston Taylor contributed reporting.